The Identity Maze – showcasing some PhD findings

Since December 5th, I’ve been running an in-world PD-class for students from The Master’s Program on ICT and Learning (MIL) at Aalborg University. It is my fifth course of this kind for the MIL Program, but this time around there are some significant changes. First of all, I have the great pleasure of running the course with my friend and kindred spirit, Inge Qunhua – a very talented Danish educator and in-world designer. Secondly, I will not be using this course for my PhD, but as a researcher I have of course set some research goals, and in this case I have been investigating the use of different classroom settings. As part of this, I have just finished a build I call  “The Identity Maze” that I will be using in a forthcoming in-world class.

The Identity Maze – as of December 31st, 2011

In my PhD-project, I have three analytical units; people, places, and practices, and the maze is based on some of the key findings regarding the people unit. In this sense, the maze is meant to showcase some findings consisting of impressions from the students that participated in my PhD-work from 2007-2010 combined with relevant theoretical input that I also refer to in my PhD.

The theoretical foundations of my PhD-work is showcased on the sides of the maze.

The people unit deals with the avatar phenomenon, with what it means to learn through a virtual 3D body, and how this affects the identity of the learners. In my PhD, I use a combination of theories ranging from learning theory (primarily Wenger, 1998), media theory (primarily Bolter & Grusin, 1999) and theories from the field of tele-presence (primarily Schroeder, 2010 and the MIT journal on Presence). In Wenger’s Social Theory on Learning, Identity plays an important role in the learning process – learning is basically an ongoing identity process, a process of becoming. Since the beginning of my PhD-work back in 2007, it has been evident that a medium such as SL challenges the learners’ identities in a manner I’ve never seen in more traditional 2D Virtual Learning Environments (VLEs), and so it makes perfect sense to focus on Identity when learning in and about 3D Virtual Worlds.

Some important aspects of the 3D virtual body experience.

I’m definitely an amateur when it comes to building in SL, but I do build from time to time, and the process of visualizing/materializing your thoughts and ideas, is really what sets SL apart from other VLEs. It can be fun, engaging, frustrating (where’s the undo button!? ;-), and sometimes very rewarding. The pictures below show the process of building the maze.

lnge lets me have a small sky-sandbox that I use to experiment, and this was where I started building the maze.

I did create a paper-draft with measurements of the maze, but as usual when it comes to creative work, the work itself tends to rule on its own, and standing in the build, feeling it so to speak, forced me to reconsider parts of the maze. Once again, I was reminded that what works in theory, doesn’t necessarily work in practice!

When the foundation of the maze was done, I moved it to the common sandbox, we use for the course.

Determining where to put posters, pictures, and questions for reflection was very much a work based on intuition.

I decided to use a mixture of textures, most of which are transparent (blank, red, and white). Walking in a maze can be quite claustrophobic, so I decided to make all walls transparent. I also think the transparency gives you a nice feel of the surroundings and of other avatars. Because of transparent textures, the maze looks different from different angles/POVs – and I think that aligns well with the whole identity issue. Some of the transparent textures are deliberately white, indicating that there is more to be seen, and hopefully this will poke the curiosity of the visitor. Evidently, skilled SL-users can overlook the whole maze with their cameras, but still …

Anyways, being an amateur isn’t always easy; when I wanted to share the build with Inge, I somehow messed up the permissions, and now this original is copy only – no edit :-( So, Inge has kindly offered to rebuild the maze (based on my blank prims), and hopefully we’ll soon have a fully editable copy …

Inge’s rebuild next to the original.

So, what’s the point of all this? Well, I intend to use the maze in a class on Thursday, 5th of January. In this class the theme is Identity, and we will focus on the students’ impressions of being avatars, and what this means in relation to learning. On our regular classroom platform, I’ve set up a couple of slides that focus on some theoretical issues (based on the course literature). After this short introduction, we’ll walk-and-talk in the maze.

Back on the platform, I’ve created a 20-question-board. For now, when you click on the question marks, you’ll see a Joker, but on Thursday, 17 of the Jokers will be replaced with relevant questions (there are 17 students). If the student chooses what turns out to be one of the remaining three Jokers, the student can talk about anything in relation to the theme, otherwise there’ll be a tricky predefined question.

And so, on this final day of the year 2011, I leave you to pause and reflect on this quote by  Chuck Palahniuk:

“Nothing of me is original. I am the combined effort of everyone I’ve ever known.”

Happy New Year to all of those who have shaped me; especially my precious in-world friends who appreciate mixed realities and thus mixed identities – I cherish you all :-)


High student satisfaction in SL

On June 16th, 22 students graduated from the Master’s Program on ICT & Learning (MIL) at Aalborg University, and this is where I’ve been running courses on SL for my PhD-project since 2007. As always, graduation day was an exciting day combining student anxiety and great relief and joy. After all the exams, there was a reception where the Masters received their diplomas, the daily manager of MIL, Ulla Konnerup and the Dean of Humanities, Lone Dirckinck-Holmfeld spoke about the students’ achievements and their new roles as “ambassadors of ICT & Learning”. Finally, we finished off the day with a wonderful dinner/dance at the Utzon Center, downtown Aalborg.

22 very happy Masters of ICT & Learning 2011.

As something new, the steering committee behind the MIL Program had decided to award the Program’s “Teacher of the Year”. All courses/modules are anonymously evaluated by the students, and based on these evaluations; I was fortunate to receive this award :-)

1 happy Teacher of the Year 2011 and 1 happy Dean (right).

Ironically, I’ve not (yet) seen these particular students evaluations, however, based on the evaluations the students and I did as part of the SL course, I do have a few ideas as to why the students find teaching and learning in SL so satisfying. To understand this a little background information is necessary. In my PhD-project, I’ve conducted 4 research cycles, spanning from 2007-2010. Each cycle consisted of designing, implementing, and evaluating a 6-8 week online course on ICT and instructional design based in SL and a conventional 2D VLE. From a theoretical point of view, I’ve been inspired especially by Wenger’s (1998) social theory on learning as participation in Communities of Practice (CoP), Schroeder’s (2011) ideas on presence and co-presence, and Bolter & Grusin’s (1999) concept of remediation. From a methodological point of view, I’ve been inspired by Insider Action Research (Coghlan, 2007), and ethnographical methods such as longitude participant-observation (Boellstorff, 2008). 53 adult MIL-students (majority are educators) in total have participated in my study. The table below provides a brief overview of the research cycles.

PhD-overview – July 2011.

Based on my data, I’ve been able to identify 3 analytical units that will inform the answering of my research question; namely what it means to learn via 1) a new, virtual environment, via 2) a new, virtual body, and finally via 3) new, virtual activities. The picture below shows the 3 units and the related topics that emerged in all four research cycles.

3 analytical units; virtual environment, virtual body, and virtual activities.

In this short post, I will not go into details with the units, but my findings show that being remediated as avatars in a new, virtual environment where it is possible to participate in a variety of new virtual activities greatly influenced the students’ perceptions of presence and co-presence, and from a Distance Education perspective this is one of the most valuable contributions SL has to offer. Conveying a sense of “being there together” as Schroeder puts it, is essential in Distance Education, not only in terms of student satisfaction, but also in terms of learning outcome. Further, SL also provides the participants with unique opportunities of “doing things together”, and as such it is possible to attribute some of the students’ satisfaction to SL’s affordances. I would, however, like to stress that relevant affordances do not necessarily guaranty satisfaction, and though this holds true for all technology, especially in a complex system like SL, the instructional design becomes pertinent. Basically, my PhD-work has been about designing for optimal learning via SL, and in this respect, I’ve found great inspiration in Wenger’s four dimensions of learning;

  • Learning as a process of experiencing – outcome: changed meaning
  • Learning as a process of becoming – outcome: changed identity
  • Learning as a process of belonging – outcome: changed community
  • Learning as a process of doing – outcome: changed practice
Even though, I’ve not designed exclusively for the creation of a community of practice in SL, e.g. by solely using Wenger’s proposed design principles*, the ideas of the theory are part of my, and the MIL Program’s general pedagogical foundation, and I do believe that SL is a medium that offers very good opportunities for creation of communities of practice, both in educational and other settings. Looking at my data, I’ve found a distinct connection between elements from CoP-theory and presence/co-presence as shown in the figure below.

Connected elements of presence and CoP-theory in 3D-remediated learning.

In short, the figure shows how the sense of presence facilitates the creation of meaning and identity, while the sense of co-presence facilitates the creation of community and practice. In practice, the elements overlap, and it is in fact the oscillation between the elements, which constitutes the dynamics of SL as teaching and learning environment as seen from a CoP-perspective. Based on the findings from my study, I believe that the combination of a social pedagogical strategy and the use of a medium that affords a strong sense of presence/co-presence and which is rich in terms of co-creative possibilities, actually can promote student satisfaction. Evidently, this is a very brief description of my work … more details will follow in my forthcoming dissertation that is due in September.


*) For an excellent example of integrating Wenger’s principles and ideas in design for teacher development in an online community, please have a look at my (now former) colleague Dr. Mayela Coto’s PhD-work.